TV Recaps | Lovecraft Country (Sundown | Episode 1)

Joelle Monique | AV Club

Watching the opening scene of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, viewers may find themselves in a state of déjà vu—particularly if they also watched the splendid Watchmen series that aired on HBO last year. Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), runs through a WWII trench stabbing the human enemy before the alien enemy makes itself known.

Several UFOs, an obligatory Cthulhu, and a rogue gladiator make their presence known. A red alien woman descends from the heavens. Her silk press waves in the breeze. When she lands, she embraces the soldier; a comfort in the chaotic new world. The narrator promises the story of “[a]n American boy, and a dream that is truly American.” When Jackie Robinson appears a moment later, the sequence reveals itself to be a dream. Freeman wakes up on a segregated bus, on his way home to Chicago. What a way to snap back to reality.

The somber reminders of Jim Crow surround Atticus. A sign directing Black citizens to the back of the bus hangs in the aisle. Atticus and a fellow traveler choose to walk several miles back to town rather than travel with the white riders on a small truck transporting them the same distance after the bus breaks down. Here, executive producers Misha Green and Jordan Peele set the tone for the series. Taking a cue from the grandfather of this text, early 20th-century horror legend H.P. Lovecraft, the show swings wildly from dark science fiction to familial melodrama, with a sprinkle of romance lightly dusting the entire production, creating a feeling of never quite landing at the point. Is this an allegory for the Black American horror reality, or a Black retelling of Lovecraft with 100% less racism? It seems to be neither, which makes the show that much more interesting, because—like Watchmen—the audience has no idea where it’s leading them.

Reading Lovecraft’s work resembles takeoff in a broken rocket. His deft ability to mold words into descriptions of the eerie and macabre instantly takes the reader to another world of occult monsters, and human fragility. But then, with a casual stroke of his pen, Lovecraft inserts prickling and divisive racism. Every Black human is a mongrel, while he depicts Indigenous peoples as dumb and filthy. These facts make enjoying the most popular Lovecraft narratives nearly impossible. But Atticus and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) identify as Lovecraft fanatics. Atticus even believes, like many Lovecraft devotees, that the stories are not fiction, but a roadmap to the occult happenings throughout the East Coast and part of the American south. He uses Lovecraft’s roadmap to begin the hunt for his missing alcoholic father.

Lovecraft Country touches on the central aspects of Blackness. Playing modern music over a period piece is nothing new, but there was a moment when I questioned what era the show was taking place. As kids played in the open spray of a busted fire hydrant and the army recruited young men outside a busy shop corner, decades blurred into a single never-ending moment. Some aspects of culture never die. They merely adapt to fit their surroundings.

Other times, the show seems to shy away from the difficult conversations. When Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) crashes her sister’s concert, the crowd demands Leti; the thin, light-skinned, straight-haired sister joins her dark-skinned, plus-sized sister (Wunmi Mosaku) on stage. They battle for the single microphone until someone brings another out for the additional performer. It seems a colorism conversation hovers around the disgruntled sisters who don’t understand one another, but the conversation doesn’t manifest by the end of the premiere, “Sundown.” There’s plenty of time to explore that dynamic. But, since most of the dark-skinned women exist on screen as secondary characters, I hope the conversation arrives sooner rather than later.

In addition to modern music, the show also inserts a quote from James Baldwin, the vibrato and heavy rattle of Baldwin’s voice reverberating over images of life on the road. Gas stations, diners, and street signs illuminate the inequality suffered by Black Americans as Leti, George, and Atticus begin their search for Atticus’ father. Baldwin’s quote—found below in its entirety because reading Baldwin can save your soul—expresses how exclusion from the American Dream seeps into the bones of both the abuser and the abused; how racism changes how a person carries themselves, how they see themselves, and how they behave.

“I find myself, not for the first time, in the position of a kind of Jeremiah. It would seem to me that the question before the house is a proposition horribly loaded, that one’s response to that question depends on where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions we hold so deeply as to be scarcely aware of them…

The white South African or Mississippi sharecropper or Alabama sheriff has at bottom a system of reality which compels them really to believe when they face the Negro that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. For such a person, the proposition which we are trying to discuss here does not exist. On the other hand..”

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